When members of Montana's House of Representatives were asked Jan. 31 to signal whether they owned rental property, the results generated chuckles from the floor. At least a quarter of the representatives present raised their hands. The question came as a matter of disclosure in consideration of House Bill 231, which would define a person's presence in an unoccupied residence without a valid lease as an act of criminal trespass.
The 2017 session has featured several debates in recent weeks over changes to Montana's 1977 Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. The issues run the gamut from preventing tenants from replacing locks to revising how long a renter's guest can stay before requiring notice to a landlord. Most of the House measures are sponsored by Rep. Peggy Webb, R-Billings. Those in the Senate are sponsored by Webb's husband, Sen. Roger Webb. The Webbs disclosed property rental interests in Billings, Roundup and Reed Point in their 2016 campaign filings.
John Sinrud, western vice president of the Montana Landlords Association, says the proposed alterations address numerous problems that have cropped up for landlords across the state in recent years, specifically "judicial imbalance" and lack of enforcement. "We've had several cases in the state where law enforcement would not remove trespassers," Sinrud says. "They say that those individuals are tenants and therefore they have to be removed through judicial eviction."
Critics in Montana's college towns have pushed back, arguing that the bills threaten to erode tenant protections established by the 1977 law. Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, says the slate of bills would "turn landlord-tenant law on its head," and believes that one bill, which would assign criminal liability to tenants who fail to inform landlords of health or safety issues, could be unconstitutional. The most contentious change advanced so far would have shortened the length of absence requiring landlord notification from seven days to 24 hours. Rep. Webb has since amended the change to five days.
"These are scary laws, and every tenant should pay attention to who is voting for these bills," McConnell says.
Mary O'Malley, director of the ASUM Off-Campus Renter Center, was particularly alarmed by an earlier attempt by Sen. Webb—since amended—to repeal a tenant's right to "reasonably" deny landlord access. O'Malley says she spoke with two University of Montana students last fall who had tried unsuccessfully to delay inspections. One had possibly contracted hepatitis A, and the other had undergone chemotherapy the day prior.
O'Malley doesn't condemn every renter-related bill that's come up. A proposal to allow email notifications between landlords and tenants would be beneficial for both parties, she says. O'Malley and others are now talking with Sinrud about strengthening tenant protections. Those discussions could lead to a more comprehensive review after the session, Sinrud says. O'Malley agrees. "If there are places we can work together, I'm more than happy to do that, because there are places we can change our landlord tenant [act] to be better for everybody."